A truly green city garden must stay close to nature.

A garden in a city or suburb is more than just a show piece. It buffers us from a harsh climate. It soothes our concrete-assaulted eyes. It shelters birds, butterflies and small animals. It absorbs rain water. It supplies fruits, vegetables and herbs.

All that seems logical, but many gardens are far from green. Householders buy tractor-loads of nutrient-poor soil to dump in the compound. We overwater plants. We remove and discard precious topsoil along with weeds. We often pave over the area because we can’t tolerate what we consider “garbage”, which is simply the leaves, flowers and branches that naturally fall off a living organism.

A truly green garden must stay close to nature. Leaves will fall. There will be bugs. There will be mud.

To start with, the ground need not be artificially levelled. A sloped garden or multi-level garden will have better drainage than a level one, and filling too much soil under a grown tree can suffocate its roots. So it is best to work with the existing levels of the garden.

Around a newly built house, the soil is often full of stones and construction debris. The topsoil has usually been lost and less hospitable soil from far below has come to the top. It has almost no earthworms or ants. It doesn’t absorb water and if we rush to put plants or a lawn into it they will wilt even with generous watering. New soil that is delivered in a tractor is usually deep soil removed from some other construction site and not likely to be any better. Instead, we can steadily improve the soil we have.

Making soil healthy is a slow but satisfying process. The worst of the cement and stones can be raked into areas that are planned for garden paths, and the rest of the soil can be enriched with organic matter. If you bury kitchen scraps, leaves and twigs into the soil, you will see the earthworms and ants come back. Gradually the rocky or dusty soil will develop a soft, granular texture that absorbs water and does not dry out quickly. Plants growing in healthy soil have a broad and deep root system and can be watered less often.

Rapid growth is not always best. In a city garden, we want compact trees and shrubs. There is no point in watering heavily so that the plants shoot up and have to be cut down often.

It is best to introduce plants gradually and to look kindly at existing plants. Almost every plant is good for something. If we can’t eat the fruit, birds may find them tasty. If the flowers are not showy, they may still attract butterflies and bees.

Finally, a city garden is a golden opportunity to grow fresh food. Moringa, lemon, guava, pomegranate are all compact trees. Vegetables such as tomatoes, brinjals and chilis can easily be grown in pots, and so can curry leaf and other herbs.

Seeds of sustainability

* Channel the kitchen and bath water towards your plants.

* Water the garden only when needed. To conserve moisture in the summer, keep pots close together and in partial shade. Water in the morning or evening.

* If you are afraid of damage caused by an overhanging tree, consider pruning the branches rather than cutting down the tree.

* Get used to seeing insects. They are a natural part of the environment. They have their own predators—usually birds. Chemical pesticides will harm the birds and leave a lethal residue on your plants. Troublesome caterpillars or other insects can be killed singly if needed in a small garden.

* Grow fruits and vegetables if you have space. Kitchen garden associations and nurseries in your town can advise you, and growing herbs and greens is often as simple as sprinkling warm water on seeds from your spice shelf.

* Plant more shrubs and hardy perennials, and fewer of the seasonal flowers that have to be replaced every year.

(This is the sixth article in a 10-part series about how to live sustainably every day. It appears on Mondays. The next article is: The Minus Touch.)

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